Summer camp for kids with Type 1 diabetes bounces back
If you live in the Northwest and have Type 1 diabetes, there's a chance you've heard of Gales Creek Camp.
For 66 years, the nonprofit summer camp has been providing a safe place for children and teens with Type 1 diabetes — a chronic condition where the pancreas produces too little insulin to regulate their blood sugar.
"Every endocrinologist's clinic in basically the state and southwest Washington knows about Gales Creek," said Rob Dailey, executive director of Gales Creek Camp Foundation for Children with Diabetes, which runs the camp. "… It's such an important part of kids' lives."
Children with Type 1 live a highly monitored life. The disease they have can quickly turn fatal if mistakes are made, Dailey said.
Children with Type 1 diabetes need to have their blood sugar checked every three hours. Roughly 2% of the population is diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, Dailey said. The severity of the disease can feel isolating for children.
"It puts kids in a position of feeling different and protected in a way that doesn't allow them to be independent," he said.
Gales Creek Camp gives them a place to stretch their wings, Dailey said.
"They get this exhilarating experience of being independent and out on their own." That, in turn, Dailey said, can give children the independence they need to take care of themselves when they grow up.
But the program's trust was tested three years ago after the arrest of the camp's former Executive Director Cheryl Sheppard, who was accused of embezzling nearly $500,000 from the camp.
Sheppard, who lived in Beaverton, was accused of diverting checks from the camp into her name over a six-year period. She served as executive director of Gales Creek Camp Foundation for Children with Diabetes from 2005 to 2016, when the embezzlement was discovered.
Last year, Sheppard pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree aggravated theft and one count of computer crime, both felonies. She is required to pay nearly $364,000 in restitution to the Gales Creek Camp foundation. She was sentenced to more than two-and-a-half years in prison.
An investigation by the Portland Police Bureau uncovered evidence that Sheppard was a heavy gambler who lost more than $150,000 during frequent trips to the casino between 2009 and 2017.
Dailey first heard about the camp from his daughter's doctor. His daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 2 years old. She began attending the camp as a kindergartener. Now in middle school, she continues to attend every summer.
Dailey said he has seen firsthand the impact Gales Creek Camp has on people's lives.
"It made a big difference right away connecting us with other families and connecting our daughter with other kids with diabetes," he said.
He added that the community is still healing from the theft incident.
"It was really sad," he said. "There was a strong sense of betrayal around that," he said.
Thankfully, the camp had some funds in savings, which ensured the students at the camp wouldn't be impacted, Dailey said.
The camp learned of the embezzlement in 2016, after a bank contracted the camp to confirm a request to close its money market account. Discrepancies in the nonprofit's finances were brought to the camp's attention by the state Department of Justice charitable activities unit, which regulates nonprofits.
The camp sued Bank of America in 2017 for allowing Sheppard to cash $500,000 in unendorsed checks that would have gone to the nonprofit.
The camp has spent the past three years working to rebuild trust with the community. Outside consultants have been working with Gales Creek Camp to rebuild of the camp's financial system, board governance and oversight systems, Dailey said.
"That's been my major focus over the last three years is making sure something like that could never happen again," he said.
Wyatt Vallejo, 22, was a camper at Gales Creek for a decade, and has worked at the camp the past five summers as a counselor and part of the medical staff. He stays in contact with some of the friends he met at camp. Now a nurse at Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles, Vallejo said he plans to volunteer at the camp this summer.
Vallejo first came to the camp in 2004, and said it helped him feel included and a part of a community.
"Camp gave me the skills and knowledge I needed to take care of my diabetes and really helped set me up to be responsible for myself," he said.
Vallejo gave himself his first Insulin injection at camp.
"[Camp] really brings together a wide community that is able to rely on each other and ask each other advice and opinions," Vallejo said. "I'm very grateful for that and very grateful to still be involved."
Working as a camp counselor at the time, Vallejo said news of the embezzlement quickly spread and some of the campers likely heard about what happened, but Vallejo said he and others staff never let it affect the fun students had at camp.
"Our priority was those kids," he said. "Our priority will always be those kids, as staff (we are) out there making sure they have the best summer that they can."
Dailey said an air of uncertainty fell over the camp after the allegations came to light. Nobody was sure what was going to happen next, he said.
Shock, anger and disbelief were some of things Dailey felt after hearing about the fraud. Mostly, he and other parents were afraid that the whole organization was going to go under, he said.
Soon, people who cared about the camp started jumping into action, he said. They wanted to help out.
"They came up and said, 'Hey what can we do to get us through the summer and then into the next summer?" Dailey said.
Dailey, who has spent his career working in nonprofits, left his job to take over at Gales Creek Camp. Before coming to Gales Creek full time Dailey worked as the executive director of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg and previously served as deputy director of the Santa Fe Children's Museum in New Mexico.
"It was one of those things where all the stars aligned at the right moment and I was able to do my little part to use my knowledge and passion to help fix the main problems," Dailey said.
Dailey said shutting the camp down wasn't an option. Too many people rely on it each summer.
"I don't think anyone ever talked seriously about not doing (camp) for a summer," Dailey said.
The camp has become a second home to many children across the state, Dailey said. Parents have grown to trust the camp with their children's health and safety.
"Honestly, after the first year their kid comes to full-week camp, they see it — they see how their kid made it through," he said. "They see the excitement they have when they're shown around camp on that Friday at pick-up."
Occasionally, parents of older children will ask to drop off their child early so they can go on a trip, Dailey said.
"You know that you've earned their trust when they're going to leave their child with you then leave the state," he said.
Dailey said it helps that he has a daughter who goes to camp because he spends a lot of time talking to parents about the procedures and how the camp manages kids with Type 1. After that, new parents tend to relax.
Vallejo said he's looking forward to the future of the camp.
"I think Rob [Dailey] has really exceeded in his role," he said. "He's done very well with the camp and taking it into the future and what camp is meant to be."
Dailey said the trust families have put into the organization is powerful. The camp has learned a hard lesson about trust since the embezzlement was uncovered three years ago, he said.
"Trust isn't enough," he said. "Oversight is necessary in the way we run our organization. Now, we've built it into every part of this organization."
The organization has been testing itself and its systems, Dailey said. A recent audit came back from third-party verification, and the results were good.
Dailey's job isn't to dwell on the past, he said. Camp officials say justice has been served and the camp is now in a good place financially. Dailey is looking ahead.
"Our goal is to make sure we have a financially stable organization and really fun and exciting programs that will be here all the way up to the moment they cure diabetes," he said.
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